Simulating the presidency

The president shows up at Payatas to express his sympathies.  It has been two weeks since a garbage avalanche buried more than 200 people here. The visit comes a bit late.  But better late than never. Like a solicitous patriarch, he lends an ear to the voices of a grieving community.  A young girl who lost both her parents, and all her brothers and sisters, is presented to him.  The president is told that her late father was also named Joseph.  Instinctively, he offers to make her his adopted daughter.

It is a scene straight from the movies.  In a society where models of public conduct are increasingly taken from the fantasy world of entertainment, Erap is completely at ease.  This is what the presidency is about – to be where the people are, to wrap a presidential arm around their frail bodies, to lift the burden from their shoulders, to give them hope, to provide instant relief.

On Roxas Boulevard, after the typhoons, he is photographed distributing P500 bills to the wet and shivering poor who live  along the sea wall.  At Payatas, he orders the immediate payment of P15,000 to the relatives of every victim.  In Mindanao, he descends upon Camp Abubakar after its capture, bringing with him a truckload of roast pork and beer to celebrate with the boys.  In today’s politics, it is such grand gestures of commiseration and camaraderie that matter and are permanently lodged in the public memory.  Not the long hours of planning and deliberation on how to build a nation.  Not the sleepless nights of agonizing over crucial decisions of state.  Not the years of patient study and sustained work to eliminate the scourge of poverty.

In the world of simulated politics, image is what is assiduously cultivated and protected.  Here, it is irrelevant to compare campaign promises with actual results.  Conventional measures of performance such as the improvement in the quality of life of the people, or the expansion of economic activity, or the narrowing of income gaps are set aside.  What counts are the photo opportunities with the adoring masses, the sound bites of presidential bravura, and television clips of instant and decisive action.  Plus the surveys, of course, for these are measurements not of performance but of perceptions of performance.

This should not surprise us anymore.  For it has long been the case that suitability for public office in our country is decided not by one’s credentials or experience, but rather by one’s media projection.  That is why we have a proliferation of TV programs in which entertainment personalities are cast in public service roles, and politicians are packaged as showbiz celebrities.  Analysts refer to this phenomenon as the implosion of the boundaries separating politics from entertainment.

One effect of this is to confer on mass media models the status of hyper-reality.  The copy becomes indistinguishable from the original. The real world begins to be measured in terms of the images supplied by mass media.  Thus the actor Rudy Fernandez in his “Kasangga” role for television begins to look more authoritative than

PNP Chief Panfilo Lacson.  In turn, in his media appearances, Lacson begins to sound more and more “presidentiable,” like the expoliceman Alfredo Lim, who himself straddles entertainment and politics.  Not to be outdone is Jinggoy Estrada, the San Juan mayor aspiring to be senator, who runs a talk show in which he tries hard to look and sound like his father simulating a serious public role.

No one has managed this transition more successfully than Erap.  He broke new ground.  He came at a time when the nation’s disaffection with elite politics was at its peak.  In my parents’ generation, the actor who came closest to breaking the barrier between politics and entertainment was Rogelio de la Rosa, who attempted to convert his mass appeal into political capital when he sought the nation’s highest position. To educated Filipinos at that time, his candidacy was such an outrage that I remember hearing my father say that he would have his arm amputated if De la Rosa ever became president.

Yet in just one generation, the rules of the game have changed drastically.  There is less and less room in our political system for philosopher-politicians in the mold of Recto, Tanada, Diokno, and Salonga.  Instead there is more and more room for folk icons like Ramon Revilla.  Except possibly for Ramon Magsaysay, none of our former presidents would have beaten Erap in the 1998 election.  They would have looked cold, stiff and unfit beside this hyper-real man from the world of illusion.  None of them affected the masses the way Erap’s movie persona did.  Erap’s movies supplied the Filipino folk imagination with enduring profiles of dependability, strength, simplicity, and generosity.  It was the fictional composite of the movie heroes he played that the masses voted as president.

Though Erap may often be tempted to take himself seriously, he knows that his survival does not depend so much on quantifiable achievement as on fidelity to form. What he cannot achieve, he must learn to simulate.  That is why when he is not busy returning political favors, his remaining energies tend to be focused not on the management of the nation, but on the management of impression.

Such is the state of the nation.


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